~ Val Van Meier

Trees … maple, pine, ash, oak, and more cover Nelson’s hills, valleys, and most of New Hampshire. After exploring (some call this bushwhacking) the woods through a blanket of green or gray-brown, depending on season, I’ll often come out onto a road, homestead, or fields. This time of year, when I come out to a field, I like to stop, breath in the scent, enjoy the sunshine, flowering grasses, the beauty of the clearing, and hopefully a view. I walk slowly, hoping to see ground nesting birds, hawks rising on thermals, or tracks of animals who passed by earlier.

Open ridges provide wonderful views in this region; they also act as highways for wildlife.

Iselin Field

Tom Murray and Linda Cates cleared seven acres out of the 31 they have on the west side of Cabot Road. Tom said when the acreage was first cleared, they immediately seeded it to prevent erosion. Their intent was to have a field for grazing, and at one point sheep did graze on it. Since then, turkeys have taken to raising their young on the field. Perhaps other unseen wildlife enjoys it or dines on the turkeys. Tom and Linda said ticks are extremely prevalent in that field.

Tom and Linda moved blueberry bushes, freeing them from shade, and rehabbed a few old apple trees transplanted during the time the Struthers family owned the land. Tom and Linda visit this field every day. They enjoy the seasonal changes, seeing the wildlife, and with very few other homes nearby, stargazing on the perfect 270-degree view.

In the same part of town, Dave Patek created three fields over the last thirty years. He tells the story of his process and motivations. (see sidebar)

When farm animals sustainably graze the land they give back to the land through their manure. Manure is beneficial for our soil and everything supported by the soil. Sheep have split hooves which help them move about and climb rocky areas. These split hooves help break up the soil. This helps spread seeds so new plants will grow. It also helps plants to absorb water and nutrients because the soil has been loosened. Rotating livestock on pasture prevents overgrazing. The livestock ingest fibrous plant matter, extract nutrients, and then deposit the partially digested fiber and remaining nutrients. The Savory Institute recommends running poultry on the pasture to scratch those deposited nutrients into the ground and in return deposit their own nitrogen rich manure. Over time, this enriches the soil, which absorbs and stores carbon. This increases the biodiversity of soil microbes and plant species, and makes for more lush pastures. Lush pastures make for healthier livestock. I love cycles like this.

Sheep have split hooves which help them move about and climb rocky areas. These split hooves help break up the soil. This helps spread seeds so new plants will grow. It also helps plants to absorb water and nutrients because the soil has been loosened.

About 22 years ago we convinced Ted Lenk and Susan Weaver to graze their sheep on our field after they were done with the field next door. Waking to the sound of sheep grazing, hearing vocalizations, learning their personalities, discovering their favorite plants and those they would eat only after their favorites were gone was the best! Who knew, even sheep like to eat dessert first!

Amy Whitney and Susan Weaver were both featured in an article about current sheep farming in Nelson published here a few weeks ago.

Amy says “Pasturing the sheep at Barry’s and Harvey’s has been hugely beneficial to the land and the sheep. We have had the sheep on these pastures for the past eight years; the grass is noticeably denser, and bare spots have been eliminated.”

When asked if their grazing fields changed over the years, Susan said, “I don’t know about the soil, but I can tell you about the vegetation, which, no doubt, affects the soil (and vice versa). The vegetation has gotten less ‘scrubby’ and more grasses have come in. Partly this is due to grazing, but also the value of the manure. I also have limed my field. When we first bought this land it had a lot of spirea and other brushy plants.”

Nelson has a good balance of fields and second-generation woods, providing home to a variety of wildlife. Lately, the No Mow May movement has become popular. Any idea that encourages folks to help our native pollinators by giving them more “field flowers” and saves on fossil fuel I consider a positive. What if the next movement was livestock on your lawn in June? That would be an interesting experiment.

Dave Patek – the Field Story

The three fields off the Cabot Road were made in the last 30 years. I was fortunate that there were in town capable persons to do the job. George Warner and his crew cleared the woods for two of the three fields, and Bud French, Ethan Tolman, and Mike Tarr, most recently, did the rest with excavators, bulldozers, and other equipment. It was a pleasure to work with all of them and gratifying to see the finished green and productive fields.

I have been asked, why the fields? There are good reasons, such as to provide for local farming and to have a more diverse habitat for birds and other wildlife. But I must confess that my main motivation was aesthetic rather than agricultural. Instead of unbroken woods, I wanted a more diverse landscape, a mix of woods and fields, more open spaces and views. A strong influence was my wife, Louise, who grew up on a farm in Ohio. She has been after me for years to do “MORE CLEARING!” Another influence to open up the woods was my experience in Nelson when I was a boy in the 1940s. It was much more open then. There were more family farms and, probably more importantly, the 1938 hurricane had inflicted heavy damage. The woods were still recovering from that storm. At that time, from our house on Dixon Hill looking west you could see Mount Stratton plainly, 50 miles away in Vermont, and at a middle ground distance you could see the Nelson Church steeple, the road and field by the cemetery, and Betsy Street’s house. In the foreground there was a pasture with Wayland Tolman’s cows. Today there is only the very peak of Stratton visible; woods covers or obscures the rest.

My start in reclaiming fields began in the early 1950s on my great aunt’s place, where we now live. She had a summer cottage built in 1912 on a hillside pasture facing south, with views of Tolman Pond, Harrisville Pond, and Mount Monadnock. Over 40 years the woods had grown up so that she only saw the peak of Monadnock. With the help of Bobby Curtis and his large chain saw we cleared about 250-300 feet in front of the cottage. Lo and behold, much of the view came back and my great aunt was thrilled. That rewarding experience got me going on reclaiming fields.

When deciding to do the fields off the Cabot Road, I walked over the land in the winter and could see that it was not too steep and there were glimpses of distant hills and mountains, Thumb and Crotched to the east and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the west. Also, I found piles of stone indicating that the land had been previously cleared for field or pasture. At the Town office a soil survey map indicated that the land along the Cabot Road was suitable for agriculture. Thus encouraged, the decision was made and, with the good results of the first one, it was hard to stop with just one field.

The Field Gallery

click images to enlarge 

Perspective on early sheep grazing in Nelson

(This was originally a comment from historian Rick Church on the earlier article about Nelson’s Sheep Farmers.)

We all love the view of today’s small herds of sheep. Nelson had new Hampshire’s biggest herd in 1836. The woods we know today were cleared for thousands of the woolly beasts. All of our stone walls were built to keep them in. Today’s small herds provide wool and meat and, if my little field is an example, enhance their environment. The past is not so benign. When the ice sheet retreated 10-12,000 years ago, plants came in and their decaying remains built about 7″ of topsoil here before settlement. That was what our forebears had to work with. Anyone who has dug into our modern soils knows there is about 1″ today. And that is the result of plant decay and deposit in the 150 years since sheep farming on a major scale moved west and, then to Australia, one hundred and fifty years ago. The Erie Canal and railroads did contribute to the decline of farming in Nelson. but overgrazing was a major contributor. Imagine the loss of 7″ of top soil in Nelson’s first seventy years and twice long that to get an inch back. Modern sheep rearing practices actually build our soil. Thank goodness.